Essay: 'That Mysterious Term: Intercultural Competence' by Janet Bennett

april 2022 cultural context cultural intelligence global mindset intercultural competence janet bennett necessity personal development professional development Apr 15, 2022

This essay was written by Janet Bennett for the SIETAR USA 2017 conference. It is reprinted 5 years later in this issue to underscore the importance of intercultural competence in the world today and for the contribution the SIETAR USA conferences can make in the professional development of our members and participants in the 2022 conference.

That Mysterious Term: Intercultural Competence

In 1964, when asked to define obscenity, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gained a bit of judicial fame by declaring, “I know it when I see it.”

While intercultural competence is not that illusive, the term nevertheless seems to conjure up a very wide range of meanings. Since the SIETAR USA conference focuses in part on intercultural competence, here is a brief offering on some of the current thinking on the topic. 

First, intercultural competence is no longer the purview of only those who have focused on intercultural relations. Functioning across cultures has become a primary survival skill for professionals in many fields: organization psychology, counseling, healthcare, social work, communication, media, politics, law enforcement, security, management, training, dentistry, etc. If we work with humans, we may even be required to master such competence as part of our certification or licensure. 

Second, many of these disciplinary roads lead to a similar place, and use terms such as a global mindset, global competence, culture learning, intercultural effectiveness, multicultural competence, cultural intelligence, global leadership competence, intercultural communication competence, or, of course, intercultural competence. 

There appears to be an “emerging consensus around what constitutes intercultural competence, which is most often viewed as a set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts” (Bennett, 2015).

Third, there is a growing body of research examining 

  • the approaches to competence development
  • the strengths and limits of various models and assessments
  • the most and least powerful interventions
  • the core competencies that matter most

And, fourth, there are some things we are beginning to understand about the process of teaching and learning about competence:

  • Intercultural competence contributes to effectiveness in both global and domestic interaction.
  • Compositional diversity (diversity by the numbers) is inadequate to address inclusivity.
  • It is rare organization indeed that has not heeded the call to address inclusivity both domestically and globally.
  • Cultural knowledge does not equal intercultural competence. 
  • Interventions must be designed developmentally, and intentionally.

Well beyond Justice Potter Stewart, we know intercultural competence when we feel it. 

Janet M. Bennett, PhD 

Intercultural Communication Institute


Bennett, J. M. (2015). Introduction. In J. M. Bennett (Ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.